“The Western tradition is heir to Judaeo-Christian as well as to Greco-Roman thought. The Bible is an important source for our basic political ideas….
“The biblical questions and answers differ from those in Greco-Roman thought. For the latter, the problem of the form of government concerns the alternatives of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. In the Bible, it concerns the choice between God and man, between divine and human law. The question is not one of freedom or slavery in a political sense, but adherence or nonadherence to the rule of God. This concern played a part in Western political thought down to fairly recent times.” (“Old Testament…New Testament” in Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff, The Development of Political Theory and Government, volume 2 of The Great Ideas Program, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1959, pages 43-44)
Adler and Wolff go on to consider three unconnected texts from the Bible: 1 Samuel, Matthew 22:15-22, and Acts 21:1-26:32). I’ll quote and comment on at least part of each of them. All Biblical quotations are from the ESV.
1 Samuel 8:4-22
“The selection from the Old Testament deals with the problem of how a people which has agreed to be ruled by God can appoint a human king. Is there a basic tension between religious and political loyalties?” (Adler and Wolff, page 43)
4 Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah 5 and said to him, “Behold, you are old and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations.” 6 But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to judge us.” And Samuel prayed to the LORD. 7 And the LORD said to Samuel, “Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. 8 According to all the deeds that they have done, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt even to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are also doing to you. 9 Now then, obey their voice; only you shall solemnly warn them and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”
(Verses 10-18 record Samuel’s warning to the people of the ways of the king who would rule over them, some inevitable but others abuse of power.)
19 But the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel. And they said, “No! But there shall be a king over us, 20 that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles.” 21 And when Samuel had heard all the words of the people, he repeated them in the ears of the LORD. 22 And the LORD said to Samuel, “Obey their voice and make them a king.” Samuel then said to the men of Israel, “Go every man to his city.”
The Jewish people regarded themselves as being ruled over by God Himself who had made a covenant with them and appointed Moses, Joshua, and a succession of judges to lead them on His behalf. In the years before the above passage the prophet Samuel fulfilled this role, but having grown old he had recently appointed his two sons to judge Israel (the Jewish people). Unfortunately they “accepted bribes and perverted justice” for the sake of “dishonest gain” (8:3). Thus the elders asked Samuel to appoint a king for them, giving as reasons for their request his age and the misconduct of his sons. However their real reason is revealed in their answer to his warning them of the ways of a king–they wanted to be like the nations around them with a king to lead them in battle. When they rejected the warning and continued to insist on having a king. God told Samuel to do what they wanted.
Actually God had long before foreseen such an event occurring, telling the Israelites in the wilderness through Moses, “When you come to the land that the LORD your God is giving you and dwell in it and then say, ‘I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me,’ you may indeed set a king over you, whom the LORD your God will choose,” and giving them some rules regarding those kings (Deuteronomy 17:14-20). The king was to be chosen by God and to be under him just as the judges had been, but the king would reign like the kings of the nations around Israel, as Samuel warned the elders, and would be succeeded by a son.
Adler and Wolff pose the question, “Is there really such a form of government as theocracy [rule by God}? Or are there only various forms of government, such as monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, each of which may claim to be led by God?” (page 50). In their discussion of the question they distinguish between Moses, Joshua, and the judges, who were viceregents for God, and kings, who although they were picked by God had more autonomy than judges.
“The passage from Matthew deals with the problem of conforming to the administrative requirements of a pagan empire. Whom shall we serve, God or Caesar?” (Adler and Wolff, pages 43-44).
15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words. 16 And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances. 17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” 18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20 And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” 21 They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22 When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away.
Two groups with opposing views of Roman rule came together to try to trap Jesus, the Pharisees who were ardent nationalists opposed Roman rule and the Herodians who supported the Roman rule of the Herods. They began by flattering Jesus and then sprang the question “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” Jesus realized that if he replied positively to the question the Pharisees would accuse him of impiety towards God but if he replied negatively to it the Herodians would accuse him of sedition towards the Roman empire. Instead he asked for a coin, drew attention to Caesar’s image on it, and said that it belonged to the imperial rulers. Thus he separated the political and religious realms and said to render to each what belongs to it.
Adler and Wolff pose the question, “What are the things which are Caesar’s, and what are the things which are God’s?” (page 52). They open their discussion of the question by observing that in Israel even under the monarchy the sacred and secular realms were hard to separate but that in a universal faith like Christianity separation between them is necessary. They go on to consider which functions belong to the state and which to the church, looking at their roles in education and in contractual matters. Then they consider what is to be done if there is conflict between the commands of the state and those of religion. Finally they consider whether the state must respect all religious practices and whether the church must respect all secular laws.
I like John Calvin’s comment on “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Here is part of what he says:
“The error Christ wanted to refute is the idea that a people cannot belong to God unless it is free of the yoke of human rule. Paul presses the same point home. No man should think he is giving less service to the one God when he obeys human laws, pays tax, or bows his head to accept any other burden. In short he declares that God’s Law is not violated or His worship offended if the Jews in external government obey the Romans. I think that he is looking askance at their hypocrisy in allowing God’s worship to be violated in so many things…yet taking up with such burning zeal a trivial matter…. But to get His message across to the man in the street Christ is content to distinguish the spiritual Kingdom of God from the political order and round of current affairs. Keep the distinction firm: the Lord wishes to be sole Lawgiver for the government of souls, with no rule of worship to be sought from any other source than His Word, and our adherence to the only pure service there enjoined, yet the power of the sword, the laws of the land and decisions of the courts, in no way prevent the perfect will of God from flourishing in our midst…. In short the overthrow of civil order is rebellion against God, and obedience to leaders and magistrates is always linked to the worship and fear of God, but if in return the leaders usurp the rights of God they are to be denied obedience as far as possible short of offence to God.” (A Harmony of the Gospels Matthew, Mark and Luke in Calvin’s Commentaries, Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1972, volume III, pages 26-27)
Acts 23:26-30; 25:14-21
“And the third text, from the Acts of the Apostles, shows how the Roman concept of citizenship conflicts with the demand of religious orthodoxy” (Adler and Wolff, page 44).
26 “Claudius Lysias, to his Excellency the governor Felix, greetings. 27 This man was seized by the Jews and was about to be killed by them when I came upon them with the soldiers and rescued him, having learned that he was a Roman citizen. 28 And desiring to know the charge for which they were accusing him, I brought him down to their council. 29 I found that he was being accused about questions of their law, but charged with nothing deserving death or imprisonment. 30 And when it was disclosed to me that there would be a plot against the man, I sent him to you at once, ordering his accusers also to state before you what they have against him.”
14 …”There is a man left prisoner by Felix, 15 and when I was at Jerusalem, the chief priests and the elders of the Jews laid out their case against him, asking for a sentence of condemnation against him. 16 I answered them that it was not the custom of the Romans to give up anyone before the accused met the accusers face to face and had opportunity to make his defense concerning the charge laid against him. 17 So when they came together here, I made no delay, but on the next day took my seat on the tribunal and ordered the man to be brought. 18 When the accusers stood up, they brought no charge in his case of such evils as I supposed. 19 Rather they had certain points of dispute with him about their own religion and about a certain Jesus, who was dead, but whom Paul asserted to be alive. 20 Being at a loss how to investigate these questions, I asked whether he wanted to go to Jerusalem and be tried there regarding them. 21 But when Paul had appealed to be kept in custody for the decision of the emperor, I ordered him to be held until I could send him to Caesar.”
Adler and Woolf survey the incidents between Paul’s being rescued from a Jewish mob by a Roman tribune and his soldiers in Acts 21 to his appearing before the Jewish king in Acts 26 prior to his being sent to Rome. All that I’ve given above are the letter written by the tribune, Claudius Lysias, to the governor of Judea, Felix, and what the successor of Felix, Festus, told the Jewish king, Agrippa II, about Paul in preparation for Paul’s appearing before Agrippa.
The tribune’s letter omits a detail that could have gotten him in trouble. He’d been about to have Paul flogged to find out why the mob was so angry with him when Paul asked, “Is it lawful for you to flog a man who is a Roman citizen and uncondemned?” It wasn’t, and immediately the tribute countermanded his order that Paul be flogged. Thus Paul took advantage of his Roman citizenship to escape being flogged.
Festus’ account to Agrippa refers to another time when Paul took advantage of his Roman citizenship. Having heard the Jews’ charges against Paul and Paul’s defence, Festus had concluded that the issue was a religious one and proposed Paul’s going to Jerusalem to be tried by the Jews. To avoid this Paul exercised his right as a Roman citizen to have his case heard by the emperor.
Adler and Wolff pose the question, “What are the rights and duties of citizenship especially with respect to religion?” (page 53). They prelude their discussion of the question by comparing Roman citizenship and American citizenship with respect to the rights of a person with either when in another province or country. Then they show that religious toleration (a citizen’s being able to oppose the state on religious matters) is only possible where there is true separation of state and religion. Finally they quote the first amendment of the Constitution of the United States, Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…,” and present these questions to demonstrate that the problems of religious tolerance are complex:
“Does a citizen only have the right to freedom of religious belief and worship or are there certain duties connected with this? Does the state have any rights against the church? Does the separation of church and state imply not only that there is no established religion, but also that secularism is officially advocated by the state? Or is secularism as much a religion as any of the particular faiths? Is it consistent with the doctrine of separation of church and state to include in the oath of allegiance the phrase ‘under God’? Does this take away religious freedom from citizens who do not believe in God?” (pages 54-55)